Blog by Dr Daniel Hayhow, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

The SUKB partnership this year compiles the latest research highlighting changes in distribution, numbers and behaviour of birds in the UK that are consistent with a changing climate. Climate change is one of the most significant threats to the world’s biodiversity, and is projected to become increasingly severe through the course of this century. Large-scale monitoring programmes, such as those summarised annually in SUKB, have provided data for a number of cross-species analyses to examine impacts of climate change.

How has climate changed?

The clearest indication of climate change in the UK has been rising temperatures. Rainfall patterns have also changed and sea surface temperatures have increased.

Observed impacts of climate change on birds

We highlight changes in abundance, distributions and timing of life history events for a wide range of species that are in line with nearly 1 degree Centigrade since the 1980s. The reports highlights how species’ distributions are moving northwards, e.g. goldfinches, chiffchaffs and nuthatches, are shifting their distributions as temperatures rise and conditions are more favorable as a consequence.

Photo: Dartford warbler numbers have risen while the UK’s climate has warmed (by Ben Hall RSPB images)

As well as shifts for common and widespread species, there are a number of previously scarce species, such as Cetti’s warbler and Dartford warbler that have recently expanded their ranges considerably. While these species continue to be limited by cold winters, most recently in 2009/10, it continues to increase in numbers and expand its range. The Dartford warbler population in the UK is projected to continue to increase. However, future climate-based projections for the European range indicate that by 2080, more than 60% of the current European range may no longer be suitable. There is evidence that this is happening already, with severe declines in Spain and France. For this reason, the species is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Global Red List. If the declines in southern Europe continue, the UK will become increasingly important for global conservation of this species.

Projected future impacts of climate change: 

For some species climate change will provide opportunities to increase and expand provided the right habitat is there. In contrast, others will be vulnerable to projected changes in climate, for some of our rare breeding species that means increasing their risk of extinction as breeding species in the UK based on projections of how climate will become less suitable for these species. These birds are mainly found in the north of the UK and in many cases, such as for the dotterel, whimbrel, common scoter, and Slavonian grebe, population declines have already been considerable (read more about the potential impact of climate change on our rare breeding birds here).

The map below adapted from a recent paper published by SUKB partners BTO shows how Green-listed species (those for which conservation concern is low (BoCC4)) (left) are projected to increase across the UK particularly in the north and Conservation status is projected to improve for 28 species whereas for Red- and Amber-listed  species (those of high conservation concern) (right) are projected to have widespread declines except in north and west mainland Scotland.

Photo: Green-listed species (left) are projected to increase across the UK particularly in the north. Conservation status is projected to improve for 28 species. Red- and Amber-listed species (right) are projected to have widespread declines except in north and west mainland Scotland (Massimino et al. 2017)

 How can we help species adapt to climate change?

The ability of a species to adapt to climate change will be influenced by other pressures in the environment and so it will be crucial to reduce non-climate related drivers and improving habitat quality and availability. Protected areas are going to be a vital part of responding to climate change, enabling conservation management as a priority. Connectivity between protected areas by increasing habitat availability in the wider countryside with be an important factor in facilitating movement of species under climate change.

The report goes on to look at the climate change adaptation management approaches that will be essential to build resilience to future climate change to facilitate species responses. We will need this evidence base and experience to recognise and respond to the vulnerabilities and risks that climate change brings, as well as making the most of any opportunities. By observing ongoing changes we can adapt management of sites and habitats to facilitate species responses to climate change.

Across the UK, nature reserve and other land managers are developing a range of actions to adapt to climate change, from coastal realignment to increasing microclimate heterogeneity. Natural England and the RSPB have published an online Climate Change Adaptation Manual, which brings together the best available science and practical experience to support decision making.

To read the full report click here.